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Giuseppe Petrosino

What is a true hero? Although we often refer to the likes of Spiderman and Superman as our main reference points, they are not true heroes. Their powers and abilities cause them to fall outside the regular human spectrum. Sure, they face down murderers and criminals, but they do so without the fear of being harmed or dying. Therefore, a true hero must be a person of modest means who pushes forward to improve the world despite  his very real mortality.  Such was the case of Giuseppe 'Joe' Petrosino who was a true hero to all Italians the world over.
If you have not heard of Giuseppe Petrosino, rest assured you are not alone. Petrosino, sadly, is a whisper in the chaos we call history. However, he is perhaps the most prolific Italian immigrants to ever live.

Giuseppe Petrosino was born in the town of Padula, Italy in 1860. At the age of 14 he and his family emigrated to New York. By the age of 23 he was a full time member of the city's police force. While this alone would have been a great accomplishment for any Italian immigrant of the era, he did not stop there. He was soon promoted to Detective and named the head of the homicide unit for the entire city. This made him the first Italian to ever head the division. However, this was not to be the greatest milestone of his career. In 1908 he placed in charge of what the NYPD dubbed the, ' Italian Squad,' which was tasked with rooting out the Black Hand ( the name for the Mafia at the time). Petrosino relished the idea since he always considered the Mafia and gangsters as a great shame to the Italian culture. Petrosino had also made a career of frequently chasing down notorious  New York gangster, Don Vito Cascio Ferro. His hunt for this man in America began after Cascio Ferro blackmailed famed tenor Enrico Caruso.

Giuseppe, knowing well the mob culture, understood that much of its power was situated not in America, but in Sicily. Therefore, he designed a plan with the NYPD that would send him on an undercover mission in Sicily to identify and arrest lead members. Unfortunately, Petrosino was undermined by his own Police Commissioner.  On the eve of his departure for Sicily, Commissioner Thomas Bingham leaked the enitre plan to one of the city's newspapers. Despite his being compromised, Petrosino left for Sicily banking on the hope that no one in Sicily would immediately know the current news in America.
Once in Sicily, Petrosino made contact with several informants. Though it is not clear if the informants had known who he exactly was, they did conspire to kill him. One night, he was contacted and told to meet an informant in Piazza Marina (Palermo). Shortly after arriving, Petrosino was gunned down in the Piazza presumably by the very man he was tracking, Don Vito Cascio Ferro.

Petrosino's body was brought back to America for a funeral on April 12th, 1909  which close to 250,000 people attended. The day was so stunning to the city and the police force that it was declared a city-wide holiday in his honor.

While Petrosino is not well known in most circles, he should never be forgotten by Italians and Italian Americans. In a time where Italians were viewed as being less sophisticated and ultimately less 'evolved' than other Northern Europeans, Giuseppe Petrosino pressed forward and  slowly reformed the image of the Italian American. In fact, hate crimes against Italians in New York were nearly cut in half after his death. For that, in conjunction with his vast accomplishments, we should be forever grateful.

More on Giuseppe Petrosino can be found on these links:

Giuseppe Petrosino Documentary (3 Parts):